Before The Dark Command , the last time John Wayne had stood before director Raoul Walsh was in The Big Trail , a film in which the swaggering 23-year-old actor looked uncomfortable on camera. Far from making The Duke famous that tale of Western migration — photographed in a lavish 70mm widescreen format — proved an epic flop.
But when the two reteamed ten years later with 1940’s Dark Command, Wayne had evolved into a different actor altogether. A decade more experienced, he possessed the quiet moral gravity that became his calling card. Plus, fresh off the success of John Ford’s Stagecoach , Wayne was something else: a bankable star.
Republic Pictures, which still had the one-time matinee cowboy under contract, had a rep for producing an unending flow of indistinguishable B pictures. But the studio used this occasion to make something more respectable. Indeed, The Dark Command was Republic’s most expensive movie ever. It paid off.
The story, about an outsider who remains the voice of reason in the contentious period presaging the Civil War, had everything going for it: Truth and honor might as well be stenciled on its hero’s Stetson hat. Not only did Wayne get glowing reviews (The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther called him “the most pleasant surprise of the picture“) but Dark Command earned Republic its only Oscar nominations ever — albeit for Art Direction and Music.Read More